Trevor's 'Death in Summer': Season's over

September 06, 1998|By Ben Neihart | Ben Neihart,Special to the sun

"Death in Summer," Viking. 214 pages. $23.95.

Recently, at a bookstore in Stone Harbor, N.J., I heard a young woman warn her friend not to read Toni Morrison's "Beloved" - and not for the reasons I often hear folks quarantining a book, not because the novel was too depressing, or upsetting, and not because it didn't end the way she wanted it to end, and not because she thought the book was phony. No, this beach reader told her friend not to read the acclaimed novel because "[Morrison] writes that whole literary way, and I really had to pay attention."

I knew just what the sun-tanned shopper meant. I have plenty of moments - OK, months - when the whole literary enterprise just doesn't please me. I want a story, straight up. I resent the awful arrogance of these writers and their finely wrought voices

making me listen to them.

But there's nothing like a diet of glossy magazines and plot-driven commercial fiction to make you crave something deeper.

Reading William Trevor's somber new novel, "Death in Summer," is hard work, a discipline for serious readers and writers. Though it's a short book, its subtle, teasing, ultimately wrenching story is told in a sophisticated voice that won't reward casual skimming at the beach.

The narrative is multi-faceted, omniscient, dipping from this character to that, flashing back a generation or two at the change of a paragraph, ultimately piecing together the quiet tragedy of a man, Thaddeus Davenant, incapable of love, in the days after a big loss pierces his life in ways he never expected. We listen to this man's heart, waiting for it to thaw. And at the same time, with an effortless, unfussy precision, Trevor shows us the spiderweb snare that links Thaddeus to an array of sad lives in a quiet town.

Every cold, stunted person in this book has a moment to prove that he loves someone, somewhere. Crabby old Mrs. Biddle, nearly a recluse, reveals a heartbreaking love for her tenant Albert in the novel's sweetest reverie. Lying in bed, listening to Albert fiddle around in his bedroom, she thinks: "Sometimes all she wishes for before she goes is to have his worries taken from him, to know he'll be all right when she isn't there to think about him. When she can't move at all, which won't be long now, she wouldn't mind it if he washed her. He could bring the basin in and lift her nightdress off. She'd lie there with something else private between them, not anyone else's business ... " By the end of "Death in Summer," the oddest, least likely men and women have captured your attention and held you, rapt, in this surprisingly tense narrative. Though Trevor makes the title doubly true, and there's also a kidnapping to get through, it's really as an emotional thriller that the book resonates. Each character goes transparent under the light Trevor shines. His prose may be truly, madly, deeply literary, but its spell is transfixing. Beach season is over.

Ben Neihart is the author of the novel "Hey, Joe." His fiction ha appeared in the New Yorker. "Burning Girl," his new novel, will be published in April 1999.

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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